Am Johal

VANCOUVER, Sep 28 2006 (IPS) — British Columbia’s auditor general says the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, set to take place in Vancouver and Whistler, will cost at least 2.2 billion dollars, fueling concerns that the games could divert scarce resources for affordable housing and other critical needs of low-income Canadians.

The recent report said that the Vancouver Olympic Organising Committee needs to strengthen its management and oversight of the games, whose costs are being picked up by the federal and provincial governments, as well as other third parties.

The auditor general wrote that he recognises there will be lasting legacy benefits associated with the games, but that no new information on the potential economic value of those benefits to the province of British Columbia has been made available.

“We are continuing to lose social housing units through gentrification while the province is spending billions on a transit line and Olympic facilities,” said Mark Townsend of the PHS Community Services Society, which operates social housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

“There isn’t even a plan in place to address what is increasingly becoming a housing crisis,” he told IPS. “We have had deep cuts to social services that have increased homelessness – all to pay for a ridiculous two-week party that benefits corporations and real estate speculators.”

Seth Klein, director of the British Columbia chapter of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said, “We support a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy as part of the provincial budget. With respect to the Olympics, the key social questions have been jettisoned partially due to cost overruns.”

“But it is not the Olympics alone that are standing in the way of making social investments,” he said in an interview. “This government has made deep cuts that didn’t have to happen – it is heavily laden with irony that irresponsible tax cuts and mega-projects like the Olympics have proceeded at the same time as restrictive policy changes and cuts to social services.”

The Pivot Legal Society, which operates in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood adjacent to where the opening ceremonies will take place, recently released a report warning that homelessness could triple in the community if policy changes are not enacted.

“If we continue to lose low-cost housing in the Downtown Eastside at the current rate, we can expect to be coping with at least three times the number of people living on Vancouver’s streets by the time the world arrives for the 2010 Olympics,” lead report author and lawyer David Eby said in a press backgrounder.

“We can’t afford this kind of increase in homelessness. We are currently spending 51 million dollars per year to maintain people on the street. Government calculations show it would be much less expensive to simply build new supportive housing,” he said.

Massive changes to social assistance policy such as time limit restrictions on collecting welfare, more stringent requirements to obtain disability benefits and legislation like the anti-panhandling Safe Streets Act have been enacted in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Although they are not directly connected, the public policy measures are seen by some as Vancouver’s attempt to sweep its homelessness problem underground.

Vancouver’s downtown peninsula has been built up with condominiums since the Expo 86 World’s Fair, and the low-income Downtown Eastside neighbourhood is now bearing the brunt of development pressures, real estate speculators and the redevelopment of the historic Woodwards building. During Expo 86, hundreds of seniors on fixed incomes and social assistance were evicted to make way for more lucrative tourists.

A city of Vancouver referendum on the Olympics in 2002 had 64 percent support.

Despite housing legislation being enacted to place limits to the change of usage of single resident occupancy hotels to youth hostels and other tourist uses, the rapid rise of property prices have made the financial penalties manageable for owners. Without a social housing strategy in place, these privately run single resident occupancy hotels provide the housing of last resort for low-income people. The change of usage to higher end rentals and condominiums often are a contributing factor to homelessness..

The No Games Coalition, a group of individuals and organisations opposed to the games, has argued that most of the groups who traditionally would have opposed the games were co-opted to support them. Key First Nations groups, labour unions and non-profit organisations which had a funding relationship with supportive governments were not in a position to oppose the Olympics during the bid process for their own strategic or organisational reasons.

Deming Smith, spokesperson of the sustainable transportation organisation BEST, told IPS in an interview, “The provincial government foisted the Richmond-Airport-Vancouver line on a tight timeline to meet its obligations for the Olympics. Translink, the local transit authority, has had to postpone purchasing new buses.”

“As well, the upgrade to the Sea-to-Sky Highway between Whistler and Vancouver has blasted through pristine areas to meet Olympic demands. As well, Southeast False Creek which was meant to be a sustainable development where the athletes’ village will be located, is cutting corners on the sustainability side due to the timelines.”


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